If you’re like most people, you want to be gentle on the planet, but you don’t want to give up life’s little luxuries. Lucky for you, going green is a lot simpler these days than it was a decade ago. Just hop into your hybrid SUV and pop into the Stop & Shop to load up on organic Florida oranges, free-range chicken, and recycled paper towels. (Don’t forget to toss in your guilty pleasure: potato chips—the all-natural ones, of course!) Then it’s back home to comparison-shop for those carbon offsets you’ve been meaning to buy so you can vacation guilt-free in the Galapagos Islands. Yep, it’s easy to be green these days. Or is it?
In the above scenario, do you know which actions help to protect the planet and which are just gimmicks? Don’t be embarrassed if you’re unsure. Companies are hiring top-notch marketing teams who put in long hours designing labels that invoke images of bucolic pastures. And ad-campaign writers feel no guilt slapping catchphrases like “all-natural” onto their not-so-green products. Their collective hope: that you’ll be duped into thinking their products are greener than they really are.
The Federal Trade Commission, the government agency responsible for preventing deception and unfairness in the marketplace, is in the beginning stages of reviewing the standards for green marketing. But until clearer standards are set (which isn’t expected to happen until at least next year), here’s a guide to help you steer clear of goods that have been “greenwashed,” or smothered with false marketing claims.
Greenwashing in the Produce Aisle
Product: Organic goods grown in far-away places and shipped to your local grocery store.
Green Gimmick: They’re organic, so they have to be better for the environment than non-organic foods.
How You’re Being Duped: Organic goods are good for the environment, sure, but if they were grown a world away, their green rating plummets once you factor in the environmental costs of shipping that produce all the way to Westchester. According to the nonprofit group Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, if you’re thinking about the health of the planet, buy local rather than organic.
Buying local not only cuts down on the exorbitant amount of fossil fuel that is burned in shipping your food to you, but helps keep the landscapes you love out of the hands of developers, says Michelle Land, program coordinator at Pace Academy for the Environment at Pace University. On the surface, it might seem like an ethical choice, not necessarily a green choice. But that’s far from the truth. When farmland gets turned into housing complexes, more people move into the area. With those extra people come more pollution-spewing cars, more solid waste, and a greater draw on our power supplies. Plus more roads and shopping plazas pop up—covering the landscape with asphalt. And since rainwater washes right over parking lots and roads, rather than being soaked up by crops and percolating through the soil, paved-over areas face a greater risk of flooding. Just ask anyone living in Mamaroneck or along the Saw Mill River Parkway who was unfortunate enough to have lost their belongings in last spring and summer’s floods.
How to Really Be Green: Shop at your local farmers’ market, or take a drive over to Stone Barns to pick up some fresh veggies. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a town in Westchester that doesn’t have a local market. Most of these markets are open only one or two days a week. If your schedule doesn’t allow for you to frequent them, you might find yourself at that A&P or Stop & Shop. If that’s the case, it is definitely better to go organic than not. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, “organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.” The organic label goes beyond the produce aisle. The USDA also certifies that meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products labeled “USDA Organic” come from animals that aren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics. How do you know if something is organic? Most grocery stores hang signs proclaiming whether produce is organic. Also, fruits and veggies containing a sticker with a five-digit price-lookup (PLU) code beginning with a “9” are organically grown.
Product: Any and all foods sporting greenwashed labeling.
Green Gimmick: Greenwashing doesn’t just refer to the most obvious of environmental claims. Many people also view going green as doing what’s most humane for animals, better for their family’s health, or even supporting “the little guy.” Watch out for feel-good phrases and those heartfelt stories on
the backs of products telling you about how the company started in the owner’s garage. While these labels are sometimes honest, they can also be signs of greenwashing.
How You’re Being Duped: Let’s start with two common ones: “free-range” and “free-roaming.” Some free-range chickens really did live the good life, clucking as they watched the sun rise over the fields and strutting their stuff in the fresh air. But that’s not always the case. Some “free-range” animals actually might never have seen the light of day. That’s because the USDA’s standards for free-range and free-roaming are lax at best. To earn the right to use these labels, farmers must make outdoor access available to its animals. However, that could mean keeping the barn door open anywhere from 12 hours a day to just 12 minutes.
And what about those “all-natural” potato chips? Buyer beware: unless the labels “all-natural” or “natural” are on meat and poultry products, there’s no standard USDA definition for either term. When used to identify meat, both labels mean that the animals do not contain any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients.
And what about those letters to the customer on the backs of your yogurt, milk, and granola packaging telling you of their mom-and-pop operation? Big conglomerates have bought out many of those mom-and-pop companies—yet they still aim to capitalize on their roots. Tom’s of Maine, for instance, started out small but is now part of the Colgate-Palmolive Company.
How to Really Be Green: Once again, buy local—you can know where your meat came from and what kind of life the animal lived before it landed on your dinner plate. Most small-scale farmers will be more than happy to discuss their operations with you. Some will even open their coop doors to you and give you a tour.
As for “all-natural” chips, etc., and those stories on the backs of products that tug on your heartstrings, don’t hesitate to call the company or look it up on the Internet. Find out if they are owned by a large parent company, and if so, if you agree with the mission of that parent company.
Product: Recycled paper products.
Green Gimmick: A company touts that its product is made from recycled material.
How You’re Being Duped: Manufacturers are quick to say they use recycled content. But its products may be made from a small percent of recycled material, or it may be hiding the fact that it uses harsh chemicals in its manufacturing processes. Read the wording on the label closely to see how much of that content is post-consumer fiber—the higher the amount of post-consumer fiber the better. That’s because these fibers come from paper that had been used previously by consumers and would have been plunked into a dump or burned in an incinerator. If the label simply reads, “Recycled Content,” then the manufacturer could just be sweeping up and using excess or damaged material generated during normal production processes—not the cardboard and newspapers that you so diligently tie up and leave curbside for the recycling truck.
Additionally, a company may use a large amount of post-consumer fiber, yet it might use harsh chemicals to make the paper so it looks nice and white. Unfortunately, the chlorine used in the bleaching process contributes to harmful chemical pollutants in our water and air.
How to Really Be Green: Anything less than 100-percent recycled material means the product isn’t as green as it could be. When you compare products, look for the one with the highest percent of post-consumer fiber.
If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of toilet paper made from virgin fiber with 100-percent recycled ones, we could save 423,900 trees. Unfortunately, the biggest name brands, like Bounty and Kleenex, use no recycled content. So when it comes to paper towels, tissues, and toilet
paper, try switching to names like 365 (Whole Foods), Fiesta, or Marcal.
About those harmful pollutants that go into our air and water during the production of paper goods: choose products labeled totally chlorine-free (TCF) or processed chlorine-free (PCF).
Of course, the best way to be green is to walk away empty-handed when you go down the paper-products aisle at the store. Remember how your grandparents used hankies instead of disposable tissues, cloth napkins over toss-away paper napkins, and tea towels to wipe up spilled milk? These might sound quaint now, but they’re actually the greenest option.
Product: Hybrid SUVs.
Green Gimmick: A hybrid is a hybrid; it doesn’t matter whether it is a car or an SUV.
How You’re Being Duped: There’s no getting around it: a hybrid SUV uses more resources and more gasoline than a hybrid car.
How to Really be Green: Buy the smallest car that will meet your needs and safety standards, says Land of Pace University. If you can stand to go smaller, Land suggests you turn your attention to a hybrid family sedan. Its production requires fewer resources than those that go into making a larger vehicle. Also, the car will go farther on a gallon of gas—and it will be friendlier to all the passengers trying to see around you in a traffic jam.
Product: Carbon-offset credits.
Green Gimmick: Many companies that sell carbon credits aren’t certified by any third-party organizations. Therefore, you have no way of knowing whether your investment is really going toward what the company claims it is.
How You’re Being Duped: When you start planning your next vacation, consider this: for a family of four to fly roundtrip from Westchester County Airport to Quito, Ecuador, a jumping-off point for the Galapagos Islands, the plane ride alone will churn out roughly 8.26 tons of carbon
dioxide as the aircraft burns its fuel. You have a choice: forgo your dream vacation, or save up more cash so you can buy carbon offsets. Depending on what company you buy from, these credits can cost upwards of $25 per ton of CO2 you choose to offset. The cash is supposed to make up for the greenhouse-gas-spewing flight you’re planning to take by supporting projects like the planting of trees in the rain forest or renewable energies such as solar or wind power. All of these efforts would help to keep Earth’s average temperature from continuing its uncomfortable upward climb.
But not all organizations are equal. With many companies who support projects in far-flung places, you have no guarantees that your money is
going toward the projects being promoted. And other companies’ carbon-offset projects could take nearly 100 years to offset your CO2.
How to Really be Green: Call the organization from which you’re considering buying carbon offsets and ask it to explain its policies. For extra peace of mind, the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends that you check out organizations that are certified by third parties, such as CarbonFund.org or CarbonCounter.org. Companies that offer renewable-energy certificates having the Green-e seal of approval are even more reliable, because they have to conform to ultra-high standards. Green-e is an independent consumer-protection program that verifies and certifies renewable energy and greenhouse-gas mitigating products.
Last year alone, shoppers and corporations in the United States shelled out more than $54 million in carbon offsets. Don’t want to spend the extra money for a lighter conscience? Land suggests you take a trip that’s closer to home. It’s actually the best option, she says. A family vacation to Lake George in the Adirondacks emits roughly 140 times less CO2 than that trip to the Galapagos.
Buying Your Way to a Better Planet
Now that you know which products are greenwashed, you can rest easy knowing you won’t be suckered in by sneaky marketing ploys. But the truth of the matter is that even the most environmentally friendly products are bad for the planet. “At the end of the day, when a person is deciding how they’re going to make a difference, you really need to scrutinize your purchases. And the first question is, ‘Do I really need it?’” says Land. The best way to help protect Earth’s future is to consume less, she says.
The three Rs—reduce, reuse, and recycle—are like the little black dress: they never go out of style. First: reduce. If you don’t need a new cellphone, for instance, don’t buy one just to get the latest functions. Second: reuse. That empty family-size spaghetti jar can be turned into a Tuscan-style vase to hold the fresh-cut flowers from your garden. And lastly, recycle. This one’s not as straightforward. There are lots of mind-boggling rules about what can and can’t be recycled (see “Recycling Basics” sidebar on page 44). As a resident of Westchester County, though, you’ll want to take the time to learn. That’s because the county has recently upped the enforcement of its 1992 law mandating all municipalities to properly separate their solid waste. Fail to do so and your trash bag will remain curbside along with a red, embarrassingly gaudy “OOPS!” sticker slapped on it announcing to all your neighbors that you mixed your recyclables with your garbage.
So what’s a person to do with recyclables other than plastics, glass, metals, and paper?
For instance, what should you do with those energy-saving compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs that are all the rage these days? In case you didn’t realize it, they contain small amounts of mercury. Surely you can’t just toss them willy-nilly in the trash or put them out with your glass jars. According to Lisa Rainwater of the nonprofit-group Riverkeeper in Tarrytown, Ikea takes them back. Or, you can take them to Westchester County Household Chemical Clean-Up Days, which accepts CFLs and other hazardous waste. For a schedule, visit westchestergov.com/envfacil/2003HCCDFlier.htm.
By the way, Rainwater says that CFLs really are the better choice over traditional incandescent bulbs. Even though they contain roughly five milligrams of mercury apiece, they are so energy-efficient that they reduce mercury emissions from the biggest source: coal-fired power plants. No greenwashing there.
Where to Shop
Locally Grown Goods (for both organics and meats):
Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills • Community Markets sponsors farmers markets in many towns. For specific locations, visit nyfarmers market.com/regionmetrowestchester.htm
Whole Foods in White Plains • Trader Joe’s in Hartsdale, Larchmont, Scarsdale • A&P • Shop Rite
Westchester Toyota in Yonkers • Toyota North in Mount Kisco • DCH Toyota City in Mamaroneck • New Rochelle Toyota
White Plains Honda • Tarrytown Honda • Yonkers Honda • Honda of New Rochelle • Mount Kisco Honda • Curry Honda
CarbonFund.org • CarbonCounter.org •
NativeEnergy.com (Green-e certified renewable energy)
Patricia Janes is a Westchester-based writer. She loves educating people of all ages about science and the environment, which is how she came to be the executive editor of two classroom magazines: Science World and SuperScience.